“Life is a mixture of happy and sad things. Movies are so lifelike — that’s why we love them.”
“Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life.”
“My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies.”
“How can that be?”
“It means movies give us twice what we get from daily life.”
—Dialogue from Edward Yang’s Yi Yi
In the year 2000, which turned out to be the most momentous of his too-brief life, Edward Yang won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival (for the film Yi Yi), became a father for the first time, and learned of the cancer that would ultimately claim him, seven years later and three months shy of his 60th birthday. And that, I dare say, is a predicament worthy of an Edward Yang film, whose characters strive to reclaim the past and explore roads not taken, only to be reminded — sometimes gently, sometimes rudely — of the randomness of destiny.
Born in Shanghai in 1947, Yang was still a toddler when his family (like some 2 million other Chinese citizens) emigrated from mainland China to Taiwan after the end of the Chinese Civil War. Not surprisingly, one of the richest themes in Yang’s work, as in that of his friend and contemporary Hou Hsiao-Hsien (who produced and gave a very fine performance in Yang’s 1985 Taipei Story), would become the search for identity — personal, social and political — in the small island nation. In sharp contrast to Hou’s diffuse, increasingly impressionistic movies, with their focus on quotidian small-town life or the doings of prostitutes, gangsters and other desperate characters, Yang’s films were (with exceptions) classically structured dramas and melodramas, at once urban and urbane, centered on professionals, artists and intellectuals.
The British critic Tony Rayns has noted that Taiwanese cinema’s “new wave” of the 1980s and ’90s (of which Yang and Hou were the two towering figures) differed from similar national film movements because, instead of addressing the lives of contemporary young people, its primary concerns were historical — specifically, the reclaiming of modern Taiwanese history from several decades of ersatz, government-sponsored propaganda films. That was certainly true of Yang’s greatest work, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), an epic memory film set during the early 1960s (Yang’s own teenage years) and based on the true story of Taiwan’s first juvenile homicide case. Stretched tautly over four hours of screen time and with more than 100 speaking parts played by mostly nonprofessional actors, the film’s ambition was startling, its achievement enormous — few movies have more readily called to mind the great, sprawling novels of the 19th century and their astute juxtapositions of ordinary individuals against the maelstrom of a changing society.
Later, in films like A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), Yang proved no less adept at charting unmoored lives in a present-day Taipei choked by neon, foreign investment and an inner emptiness that all the Happy Meals in the world could not abate.
But like most great filmmakers, Yang was timeless, and transcendent of linguistic or geographic barriers. Wherever or whenever in the world they took place, his films — seven features and one short directed between 1982 and 2000 — constantly circled back to the allure of missed opportunities and the age-old conflicts between parents and children. It was territory Yang knew well, for before he ever picked up a movie camera, he had lived another life, several thousand miles away from Taiwan and the movie business. Though the boy Edward had shown stirrings of an artistic temperament, drawing his own accomplished comic books after becoming a fan of Japanese manga, his parents had pressured him to pursue a more traditional career, and he had acquiesced. So he came to America, first as a graduate student in computer sciences at the University of Florida, and, following a semester-long flirtation with USC Film School, as a researcher in the applied physics lab at the University of Washington.
In Yang’s brilliant 1986 film The Terrorizer, a young novelist nearly gives up writing and returns to the 9-to-5 work force when a prestigious literary prize restores her faith in her abilities. For Yang, a similar epiphany came right there in Seattle, where one of his regular trips to a local art-house cinema brought him face to face with Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. He returned to Taipei, where he earned work as a screenwriter on director Yu Weiching’s The Winter of 1905 (1981), before making his directorial debut the following year with “Expectation” (a.k.a. “Desires”), a plangent study of a teenage girl’s sexual ripening featured as the second (and best) segment of the omnibus film In Our Time.
The scientist in Yang is hardly absent from the films that follow, which feel like the product of a devoutly logical, rational mind striving to impose order — a system, a periodic table — on the irrational world of human experience. Like ?the boy photographer Yang-Yang in Yi Yi, who takes pictures of the backs of people’s heads so as to show them that which they cannot see themselves, Yang was forever contemplating his (and our) inability to see in more than one direction at a time — a feeling subtly amplified by his habit of filming his characters reflected in mirrors and windows. That quandary reaches its most eloquent expression late in Yi Yi, when the husband and father NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) travels on business to Tokyo, where he is reunited with Sherry, the high-school sweetheart he loved and lost 30 years earlier. As they traverse the boulevards of what might have been, back in Taipei NJ’s daughter Ting-Ting is experiencing her own first blushes of romance with a slightly older boy nicknamed “Fatty” — scenes that double as surrogate flashbacks to NJ and Sherry’s own youthful courtship.
It is a familiar Yangian construct — the unexpected reunion with a ghost of the past — and in the Yang of old, the uncertainties surrounding NJ and Sherry’s relationship would have remained uncertain. But Yi Yi, which in many ways feels like the work of a filmmaker who has come to terms with much in his own life, ends with NJ’s matter-of-fact admission that, given the chance to live his life over again, he wouldn’t change a thing. It’s a scene that echoes powerfully back to the ending of Yang’s first feature-length film, That Day on the Beach (1983), in which a concert pianist who has spent most of her adult life wondering what became of her high-school love after he was forced by his parents into an arranged marriage, learns that he has died of cancer. The final scene of the movie is a flashback to the young man, Jia-sen, on his deathbed, as he speaks words that now seem like Yang’s own premature eulogy:
What a violent contrast
Everything here is so cold
But my heart is hot and beating hard
With some strange, formless energy against that icy wind
What makes it work so hard I wonder?
But, I’m happy enough
You know? Content
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Just keeping this small life going so long
Is something worth celebrating in itself
I first met Edward Yang at Cannes in 2005, where we found ourselves serving on different festival juries, and since he moved to Beverly Hills later that year it was my privilege to share a few meals with him. In person, he cut a memorable figure — tall and lanky, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a robust laugh (which, thankfully, survives on the commentary track of The Criterion Collection’s excellent Yi Yi DVD) that could catch you by surprise no matter how many times you’d heard it. Though he would make no subsequent films, he spoke enthusiastically of many projects in various states of development, including The Assassination, about a political murder in 1930s Shanghai; Genius, the story of a child prodigy that would once again have drawn on Yang’s enormous gift with child actors; a Seattle-set crime drama based on the true story of a policeman with mafia ties; and The Wind, an animated martial-arts fantasy to be produced by Jackie Chan, on which Yang was actively working at the time of his death.
So, Yang goes to his grave not having made enough films and, more tragically, having been too little recognized for the ones he did. He is emblematic of an entire generation of directors whose work, given the demise of campus film societies and the decline in attendance at museums, cinematheques and art-house theaters, is scarcely shown outside of the film-festival circuit and — in Yang’s case — has little benefited from the explosion of the home-video marketplace. (As of this writing, only Yi Yi is widely available on DVD in the U.S., while several other Yang titles can be obtained in atrocious VHS or VCD versions.) It was said he could be difficult, which I take to mean that he was exacting and uncompromising. Certainly, I doubt he would have threatened Ang Lee’s status as Hollywood’s favorite Asian bedfellow. Now, Yang has been laid to rest in a fitting place: the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, which includes among its eternal residents Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster and, more significantly, the directors Billy Wilder, Lewis Milestone and John Cassavetes. Like them, Yang was a giant figure in cinema, even if it will take some years yet before that is duly noted. In the near future, long-overdue retrospectives will be mounted and, when moviegoers turn their heads in the right direction, a master will stand revealed.